The many complexities of motherhood were on full display at this year’s TIFF — from “True Mothers” to “Pieces of a Woman” to “A Good Man” — and Jesse Noah Klien‘s “Like a House on Fire” added yet another layer to that complexity.
The film starts with heavy breathing and out of focus vision — very focused on the small details and insignificant actions. But that leads the viewer to think that this all seems somehow new and significant and overwhelming to the young woman. There are sneaky angles giving the impression that we’re spying and not supposed to be here in the first 5 minutes of almost complete silence. “Like a House on Fire” opens up with Dara (Sarah Sutherland), who has just returned home after two years, spying on a father and his young daughter. We come to find out that the young girl is Dara’s four-year-old daughter (Margaux Vaillancourt) and the man is her estranged husband (Jared Abrahamson). Where has she been the last two years?
Dara shows up trying to reconnect with her family and a daughter who no longer recognizes her, but she comes to find out that she has essentially been replaced — her husband is in a new relationship with a woman (Dominique Provost-Chalkley) who is 7-months pregnant and whom her daughter calls “mom.” This sends Dara reeling as she feels she has no where to go and no one to turn to. She meets a sensitive, young college student in the park who helps to ground her and be a soundboard for her troubles. She has temporarily moved back in with her dad and his new family, but there is a lot of tension there too.
After having been gone for so long, Dara is trying to return to life as she left it — but that’s not how the world works — people move on with their lives. Jesse Noah Klien‘s film is a touching look at the after effects of generational trauma and mental health issues. Motherhood, especially for first time mothers, can be an emotional rollercoaster that some people have a harder time with than others. In Dara’s case, her mother left her when she was young and she is trying her hardest to break that cycle. She promised her husband and daughter she would be back — and here she is — but is that enough? You feel sorry for everyone involved in this difficult situation. Her husband is caught between a rock and a hard place as Dara tries to inject herself back into her daughter’s life, but this is no easy feat leading to many uncomfortable moments for all involved.
“Like a House on Fire” is all about confronting your past and trying to move forward in a healthy way. Like it was said in the film, you have to “be patient with yourself…look ahead now, not behind.” The film also shines a light on mental health issues surrounding motherhood in such a delicate way. There are tender moments that are abruptly interrupted as the complexity of the situation reasserts itself. Although some of the situations and plot devices are unnecessary (Dara’s issues with her stepmom and the random weird bonding moment with her young step-sister seemed like overkill). But the sensitive subject matter and sincere performances really ground the film and saves it. In the end, the film is about redemption and motherhood that is book-ended by a beautiful love letter to a young daughter.